First Woman to Run Global Enzyme Giant Challenges Status Quo

The first woman ever to be chief executive of the world’s biggest industrial biotechnology firm wants to stop wasting resources on projects that aren’t going anywhere, and start spending more on those that are.

For the past 25 years, Ester Baiget has been a key figure at Dow Chemical Co., known for its legendary discipline on costs. But the 48-year-old says she wants to make an even “bigger impact” as CEO of Novozymes A/S. That’s as a growing consumer obsession with hygiene and health presents huge potential for the Danish company.

First Woman to Run Global Enzyme Giant Challenges Status Quo

The job, which Baiget has had since February, exposes her to a field in which she readily admits she’s no expert. Instead of mass-produced plastic, Baiget now needs to understand the intricate world of enzymes used in biofuel, food and washing detergent. But Novozymes faces a problem that giants across all industries meet after years of growth: some corners of the empire start to bloat.

Baiget is about to instill some of Dow’s nous for cost discipline into a Danish group famed for its cutting-edge innovation, but not its focus on research returns. She says she’s figuring out which of Novozymes’s many projects to throw more resources at, and which should meet a swift end.

“If you start a project thinking the oil price is going to be at $150 and it goes to minus $40, it’s so much better to pause and think,” said Baiget. “In some cases it will mean we may terminate a project. It’s okay to fail, but fail fast.”

Novozymes makes the enzymes that go into everything from personal hygiene products, to wine and pharmaceuticals.

Since February, when Baiget started as CEO, Novozymes’s shares have added about 12%, including a 1% gain on Monday. The company’s market value is now just over $17 billion.

Product areas that have done well include hygiene, after Covid-19 spawned an obsession with cleanliness. At the other end of the scale is biofuel, after the virus meant more people stayed at home, and stopped using cars.

Novozymes often sells individual products to customers like Henkel AG, the German maker of Persil washing soap. But it wants to provide more complex solutions that mix and match enzymes with yeasts and microorganisms. The most lucrative areas include crop protection, animal health products that cut the need for antibiotics, meatless proteins and biodegradable solutions.

According to Duncan Fox, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, Novozymes’s products are innovative, increase functionality, boost industrial efficiency and cut waste.” But, he said in a July 8 note, they’re “expensive, so it’ difficult to know when clients will adopt them.”

A science graduate from the University of Tarragona, Baiget says she was “happy at Dow,” (during her quarter-century stint at the company, she worked directly under former CEO Andrew Liveris as his assistant).

“But I know this will be a better fit,” she said. “I will make a bigger impact here.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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